Truth, justice and the Ballymurphy massacre

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“I don’t believe knowing is enough or alone makes you happy. You want the next thing – you want justice” – Max Mxenge, brother of Griffiths Mxenge, human rights lawyer assassinated by counterinsurgency police unit in Apartheid South Africa

Joan Connolly left eight children orphaned when she died. She bled to death after being shot in the face and leg by high velocity bullets and left in a field. She had been out looking for her young daughter amidst some civil unrest when she was killed.

Joan was one of ten innocent civilians who were shot dead by British Army in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast in three days of brutal repression of her community after the introduction of internment without trial on 9th August 1971.

Another of the victims was the local parish priest, Fr Hugh Mullan, who was shot after he went to the assistance of an injured man, armed only with a white handkerchief. Similarly, Frank Quinn, Daniel Teggart, Kevin Phillips, Joseph Murphy, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr were all unarmed when they were killed by soldiers.

An eleventh victim, Paddy McCarthy, died from a heart attack after soldiers allegedly performed a mock execution on him. In total, 57 children were lost a parent in the Ballymurphy Massacre.

No one was ever held to account for these killings. In 1970 an agreement was reached between the general officer commanding the British Army (GOC) and the chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, whereby in an investigation into the use of lethal force by military personnel, the interviewing of soldiers would be carried out by the Royal Military Police, another branch of the army ‘family tree’. During the period when the Agreement was in force, which included the events of Ballymurphy, soldiers who engaged in the use of lethal force were not subject to the rigours of the legal system, nor were they rendered accountable for their use of lethal force.

The original inquests into the deaths of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre held in 1972 were hopelessly inadequate. The non-compellability of soldiers to give evidence to the coroner’s court, the lack of pre-inquest disclosure to the families or their legal representatives and the inability of the coroner to reach ‘findings’ meant the inquests were deeply flawed.

The legal regulation of inquests in the north of Ireland has been subject to penetrating changes in recent years. These changes have, in large part, been due to legal challenges by the families of victims of state killings. Inquest now must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

In November 2011 the attorney general John Larkin QC exercised his discretion under section 14 of the Coroners Act (NI) 1959 to direct fresh inquest into those shot dead in Ballymurphy after considering legal submissions from my office. The inquest has been set for hearing in September 2018.

The relatives of those shot dead at Ballymurphy in 1971 have always known that their loved ones were innocent. But knowing is not enough. Officially acknowledging past wrongs and repudiating wrongful judicial verdicts, such as flawed inquest verdicts, is part of obtaining justice for these families. After 47 years, they hope that the new inquest will provide them with some measure of truth.

Pádraig Ó Muirigh is a lawyer for the Ballymurphy families.

This piece was commissioned by guest editor Diane Abbott.

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